Mormonism and the Bible/Inerrancy
Critics claim the Bible texts, at least in their pristine form, were inerrant. Therefore, it is incorrect for Joseph Smith to teach that the Bible contains errors, mistakes, or omissions.
The textual evidence before us makes an inerrant Bible text untenable. Furthermore, the doctrine of inerrancy is not a Biblical doctrine, and so can only be imposed upon the text from outside, not drawn out of the teachings of the purportedly "inerrant Bible."
The Latter-day Saint stance of honoring the Bible and seeking to understand it, while appreciating that it is the Word of God only insofar as fallible humans have faithfully transmitted that Word to us, is consistent with both Biblical teaching and the evidence available to us.
Insisting on Biblical infallibility is a theological and ideological presupposition, not a natural consequence of Bible teachings.
The Bible nowhere makes the claim that it is inerrant.
As Blake Ostler observed of the "Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy":
- The doctrine of inerrancy is internally incoherent. In my opinion, numerous insuperable problems dictate the rejection of inerrancy in general and inerrancy as promulgated in the Chicago Statement in particular. First, the Chicago Statement is self-referentially incoherent. One cannot consistently assert that the Bible is the basis of his or her beliefs and then assert that one must nevertheless accept biblical inerrancy as asserted in the Chicago Statement...This statement contains a number of assertions, propositions if you will, that are not biblical. Inerrancy, at least as recently asserted by evangelicals, is not spelled out in the Bible. Nowhere do the words inerrant or infallible appear in the Bible. Such theoretical views are quite alien to the biblical writers. Further, inerrancy is not included in any of the major creeds. Such a notion is of rather recent vintage and rather peculiar to American evangelicalism. Throughout the history of Christian thought, the Bible has been a source rather than an object of beliefs. The assertion that the Bible is inerrant goes well beyond the scriptural statements that all scripture is inspired or "God-breathed." Thus inerrancy, as a faith commitment, is inconsistent with the assertion that one's beliefs are based on what the Bible says. The doctrine of inerrancy is an extrabiblical doctrine about the Bible based on nonscriptural considerations. It should be accepted only if it is reasonable and if it squares with what we know from scripture itself, and not as an article of faith... However, it is not and it does not.
- The Chicago Statement can function only as a statement of belief and not as a reasonable observation of what we find in the Bible. The Chicago Statement itself acknowledges that we do not find inerrant statements in the Bible, for it is only "when all facts are known" that we will see that inerrancy is true. It is very convenient to propose a theory that cannot be assessed unless and until we are in fact omniscient. That is why the Chicago Statement is a useless proposition. It cannot be a statement of faith derived from the Bible because it is not in the Bible. It cannot be a statement about what the evidence shows because the evidence cannot be assessed until we are omniscient.
The current evidence of Biblical manuscripts demonstrates unequivocally that corruption and tampering with Biblical texts is the rule, not the exception.
Emmanuel Tov, J. L. Magnes Professor of Bible at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, and editor-in-chief of the Dead Sea Scrolls publication project wrote:
- "All of [the] textual witnesses [of the OT] differ from each other to a greater or lesser extent."
- "There does not exist any one edition [of the OT] which agrees in all of its details with another."
- "Most of the texts—ancient and modern—which have been transmitted from one generation to the next have been corrupted in one way or another." (emphasis in original)
- "A second phenomenon pertains to corrections and changes inserted in the biblical text. . . . Such tampering with the text is evidenced in all textual witnesses."
- "Therefore, paradoxically, the soferim [scribes] and Masoretes carefully preserved a text that was already corrupted."
- "One of the postulates of biblical research is that the text preserved in the various representatives (manuscripts, editions) of what is commonly called the Masoretic Text, does not reflect the 'original text' of the biblical books in many details."
- "These parallel sources [from Kings, Isaiah, Psalms, Samuel, etc.] are based on ancient texts which already differed from each other before they were incorporated into the biblical books, and which underwent changes after they were transmitted from one generation to the next as part of the biblical books."
- "S[eptuagint] is a Jewish translation which was made mainly in Alexandria. Its Hebrew source differed greatly from the other textual witnesses (M[asoretic], T[argums], S[amaritan], V[ulgate, and many of the Qumran texts]). . . . Moreover, S[eptuagint] is important as a source for early exegesis, and this translation also forms the basis for many elements in the NT."
- "The importance of S[eptuagint] is based on the fact that it reflects a greater variety of important variants than all the other translations put together."
- "Textual recensions bear recognizable textual characteristics, such as an expansionistic, abbreviating, harmonizing, Judaizing, or Christianizing tendency."
- "The theory of the division of the biblical witnesses into three recensions [Masoretic, Septuagint, and Samaritan] cannot be maintained . . . to such an extent that one can almost speak in terms of an unlimited number of texts."
- "The question of the original text of the biblical books cannot be resolved unequivocally, since there is no solid evidence to help us to decide in either direction."
- "We still have no knowledge of copies of biblical books that were written in the first stage of their textual transmission, nor even of texts which are close to that time. . . . Since the centuries preceding the extant evidence presumably were marked by great textual fluidity, everything that is said about the pristine state of the biblical text must necessarily remain hypothetical."
- "M[asoretic] is but one witness of the biblical text, and its original form was far from identical with the original text of the Bible as a whole."
- "As a rule they [concepts of the nature of the original biblical text] are formulated as 'beliefs,' that is, a scholar, as it were, believes, or does not believe, in a single original text, and such views are almost always dogmatic."
- "During the textual transmission many complicated changes occurred, making it now almost impossible for us to reconstruct the original form of the text."
- "many of the pervasive changes in the biblical text, pertaining to whole sentences, sections and books, should not . . . be ascribed to copyists, but to earlier generations of editors who allowed themselves such massive changes in the formative stage of the biblical literature."
- "It is not that M[asoretic text] triumphed over the other texts, but rather, that those who fostered it probably constituted the only organized group which survived the destruction of the Second Temple [i.e., the rabbinic schools derived from the Pharisees]."
A similar situations confronts us with the New Testament. Leon Vaganay and Christian-Bernard Amphoux wrote in An Introduction to New Testament Criticism:
- "They [ancient methods of rhetorical interpretation] are used to reveal a secret code, only accessible to the learned or initiated. If the 'Western' text is seen from this perspective, it becomes less of a product of a certain theology than of a certain system of meaning. . . . But this sophisticated kind of coded writing is not suitable for general circulation. For wider distribution, the text had to be adapted to the mentality of the people who were going to receive it, it had to be revised and changed so as to make it acceptable to an audience who were not expecting to have to look for hidden meaning."
- "The wide stylistic gap between the two main New Testament text types, the 'Western' on the one hand and all the other types on the other hand, cannot have arisen by chance."
- "In AD 178 the secular writer Celsus stated in polemic against the Christians: some of the believers . . . have changed the original text of the Gospels three or four times or even more, with the intention of thus being able to destroy the arguments of their critics.' (quoted in Origen, Contra Celsum, SC 132, 2, 27). Origen does not deny the existence of such changes." Indeed, Origen wrote, "It is an obvious fact today [third century A.D.] that there is much diversity among the manuscripts, due either to the carelessness of the scribes, or to the perverse audacity of some people in correcting the text, or again to the fact that there are those who add or delete as they please, setting themselves up as correctors."
- "It is therefore not possible to reconstitute with certainty the earliest text, even though there is no doubt about its having existed in written form from a very early date, without a preparatory oral stage."
- "In the period following AD 135, the recensions proliferated with a resultant textual diversity which reached a peak before the year 200."
- "Thus between the years 150 and 250, the text of the first recensions acquired a host of new readings. They were a mixture of accidental carelessness, deliberate scribal corrections, involuntary mistakes, a translator's conscious departure from literalness, a reviser's more systematic alterations, and, not least, contamination caused by harmonizing to an extent which varied in strength from place to place. All these things contributed to diversification of the text, to giving it, if one may so put it, a little of the local colour of each country."
Who made the changes?
Christian writers often accused heretics (such as Marcion of the second century AD) of altering the Bible text. However, there is another more disturbing finding for those who insist on an inerrant Bible text:
- ...recent studies have shown that the evidence of our surviving manuscripts points the finger in the opposite direction. Scribes who were associated with the orthodox tradition not infrequently changed their texts, sometimes in order to eliminate the possibility of their "misuse" by Christians affirming heretical beliefs and sometimes to make them more amenable to the doctrines being espoused by Christians of their own persuasion.
Thus, the "orthodox" Christian tradition required the original texts to be reworked to support their views or oppose the views of those with whom they disagreed. It seems strange, then, to now accuse those who do not wholly accept the "orthodox" view of "violating scripture," since that very scripture was originally tampered with by those we now label 'orthodox,' which is merely another way of saying that they won the battle to define their view as the 'proper' one.
As Bruce Metzger observed:
- Odd though it may seem, scribes who thought [for themselves] were more dangerous than those who wished merely to be faithful in copying what lay before them. Many of the alterations which may be classified as intentional were no doubt introduced in good faith by copyists who believed that they were correcting an error or infelicity of language which had previously crept into the sacred text and needed to be rectified. A later scribe might even reintroduce an erroneous reading that had been previously corrected. …The manuscripts of the New Testament preserve traces of two kinds of dogmatic alterations: those which involve the elimination or alteration of what was regarded as doctrinally unacceptable or inconvenient; and those which introduce into the Scriptures ‘proof’ for a favorite theological tenet or practice...
What did early Christians think?
Justin Martyr, a second-century Christian author, complained that the Jews had altered scripture:
- And I wish you to observe, that they [the Jews] have altogether taken away many Scriptures from the translations...
Origen, a third-century Christian author, bemoaned the problem of poor textual transmission even in his era:
- The differences among the manuscripts have become great, either through the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they make additions or deletions as they please.
Textual scholar Bruce Metzger quoted this passage, and then observed:
- Origen suggests that perhaps all of the manuscripts existing in his day may have become corrupt...
The Book of Mormon describes how "plain and precious things" (1 Nephi 13:28) were removed from the Bible—Origen here complains of "deletions," from the scriptures, which would be the hardest changes to detect. An alteration may be detectable, but a deletion is simply gone forever.
Corinthian bishop Dionysius complained in the second century:
- When my fellow-Christians invited me to write letters to them I did so. These the devil's apostles have filled with tares, taking away some things and adding others. For them the woe is reserved. Small wonder then if some have dared to tamper even with the word of the Lord himself, when they have conspired to mutilate my own humble efforts.
Latter-day Saints wish to defend the Bible
While not believing that the Bible—or any book—is inerrant, the Latter-day Saints are far more concerned with defending the Bible's value than in denigrating it. Harold B. Lee observed, in 1972:
- I believe that the problem of our missionaries in our day too might be not so much to prove that the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price are indeed the word of the Lord, but that the Bible, which is generally accepted as the word of God, is being doubted as having been derived from the words of inspired prophets of past generations.
- In this day when the Bible is being downgraded by many who have mingled philosophies of the world with Bible scriptures to nullify their true meaning, how fortunate that our Eternal Heavenly Father, who is always concerned about the spiritual well-being of His children, has given to us a companion book of scriptures, known as the Book of Mormon, as a defense for the truths of the Bible that were written and spoken by the prophets as the Lord directed....
- It is only as we forsake the traditions of men and recover faith in the Bible, the truth of which has been fully established by recent discovery and fulfillment of prophecy, that we shall once again receive that inspiration which is needed by rulers and people alike. 
- [note] On the Chicago Statement, see Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, rev. and exp. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 181–185.
- [note] Blake T. Ostler, "Bridging the Gulf (Review of How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation)," FARMS Review of Books 11/2 (1999): 103–177. off-site PDF link (italics in original)
- [note] These examples are taken from William J. Hamblin and Daniel C. Peterson, "The Evangelical Is Our Brother (Review of How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation)," FARMS Review of Books 11/2 (1999): 178–209. off-site PDF link. References to Tov's original work may be found in footnotes 26–49.
- [note] These examples are taken from William J. Hamblin and Daniel C. Peterson, "The Evangelical Is Our Brother (Review of How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation)," FARMS Review of Books 11/2 (1999): 178–209. off-site PDF link. References to Vaganay and Amphoux's original work may be found in footnotes 52–58.
- [note] Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (HarperSanFrancisco,  2007), 53. ISBN 0060859512. ISBN 0060738170.
- [note] Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament. Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (second edition 1979; first edition 1964), 195, 201.
- [note] Justin Martyr, "Dialogue with Trypho," in Chapter 71 Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)1:234. ANF ToC off-site This volume
- [note] Origen, Commentary on Matthew 15.14 as quoted in Bruce M. Metzger, "Explicit References in the Works of Origen to Variant Readings in New Testament manuscripts," in Biblical and Patristic Studies in Memory of Robert Pierce Casey, ed. J Neville Birdsall and Robert W. Thomson (Freiburg: Herder, 1968), 78—79; reference from Erhman, 223.
- [note] Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament. Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (second edition 1979; first edition 1964), 152; citing Metzger, “Explicit references in the works of Origen to Variant Readings in New Testament Manuscripts,” in Biblical and Patristic Studies in Memory of Robert Pierce Casey, ed. J.N. Birdsall (1963): 78–95.
- [note] Cited in Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (HarperSanFrancisco,  2007), 53. ISBN 0060859512. ISBN 0060738170.
- [note] Harold B. Lee, Teachings of Harold B. Lee (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1996), 158-159. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)